Breath, Dove, Fire

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Sunday 9th June 2019 (Day of Pentecost)
Acts 2.1–11; Romans 8.14–17; John 14.8–17

How do you feel about the Holy Spirit? What image comes to mind first when you hear the phrase?

Is it, perhaps, fire, as in today’s first reading, when flames appeared on each of the apostles on the Day of Pentecost? This is quite a scary image, perhaps suggesting that the Holy Spirit is powerful and hard to control.

Or do you picture a dove, as in the stories of Jesus’s baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes down on him like a dove? This suggests a more gentle presence, like that other image of the Spirit anointing someone’s head like oil – as we do after a baptism.

There is one other image that is vitally important, though, and it’s hidden in the name of the Holy Spirit. The word spirit is a borrowing from the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breath’, and was used in Latin Bibles to translate the Greek word pneuma in the New Testament and the Hebrew word ruach in the Old Testament, which both mean ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. So the original image, the original way of thinking about the Spirit, was as God’s breath – the power of life that he breathed into Adam and all life. In the words of our psalm this morning, ‘When you send forth your spirit, they are created’ (Psalm 104.32).

So we have these four rather different images – fire, dove, oil, breath – but what does the Holy Spirit actually do? In the Old Testament the Spirit of God does two things: when thought of as God’s breath, the Spirit gives life; and when thought of as like anointing oil, the Spirit commissions special people for important jobs. In the New Testament these functions of the Spirit are combined and developed.

First, in the New Testament the Spirit doesn’t just give ordinary biological life to every creature – the Spirit dwells in some people in a special way, making them even more alive, making them children of God. It may sound strange to talk about being more alive – surely you’re alive or you’re not – but we all understand the concept of ‘living life to the full’. For us as Christians, that doesn’t necessarily mean bungee jumping in New Zealand or staying out until 6am in Soho – it means living the life we were created to live, finding how to be completely ourselves and rejoicing in it, facing our fears and growing as a result, doing all we can to fulfil our potential and be shining examples of what a human being is.

The old way of trying to be children of God was by following all God’s commandments, being perfect rule-keepers. But the first-century Christian Paul thinks that this really only traps us in fear and anxiety, and makes us slaves to sin. When he was a Pharisee, he had believed that only those who kept all God’s commandments perfectly could call themselves ‘children of God’. But now he says that we must leave behind that image of God as a stern lawgiver, always ready to reject us if we’re not up to the mark. Now he believes that God has made us his children by giving his Spirit to us, and that the Spirit leads us towards fuller life, helping us to become the people God created us to be. In our second reading Paul wrote:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God […].

Every time we call God ‘Father’ we are reminded that God has called us his children, giving us his Spirit to make us more alive.

But it doesn’t stop there. In the Old Testament only special people were anointed with the Spirit: prophets like Moses and kings like David. The Spirit commissioned a few people to speak and act on behalf of God.

But in the New Testament all Christians have the Spirit, and all Christians are commissioned to do God’s work in the world. The Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, could have been called ‘the Acts of the Spirit’, as it’s the story of how the Holy Spirit drives the early Christian movement out from Jerusalem and around the eastern Mediterranean. The Spirit is no longer for special people – the Spirit works in every Christian. Every child of God in whom the Spirit dwells has a role to play in God’s mission. No doubt there are some specific tasks God has in mind for you, but at the end of this service we will all re-commit ourselves to the basics, to the things the Spirit asks every Christian to do.

But God doesn’t force us – he waits for our consent. Let’s pray that we may be more aware of the Spirit, so that we can cooperate with the things the Spirit is doing.

Because the Spirit does amazing things:

  • The Spirit is the breath of God in us, making us fully alive, worthy to be called ‘children of God’.
  • The Spirit is the dove, the anointing oil poured out on us at our baptism, giving us a role in God’s saving mission to the world.
  • The Spirit is fire, burning up our false images of God, and driving us out, powerful and a little wild, to set the world on fire with love.

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